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Stefano Ghisolfi on Climbing the World’s Hardest Grade… and Then Downgrading It

He became the third person in the world to climb a proposed 9c (5.15d) with a repeat of Bibliographie, but later suggested 5.15c

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Italian sport climber Stefano Ghisolfi made history with a send of Bibliographie, in Céüse, France. The Fiamme Oro di Moena athlete snagged the second ascent of the proposed 9c (5.15d) on August 24th. Bibliographie was bolted by Ethan Pringle and first climbed by Alexander Megos who, along with Adam Ondra, is one of the two (now three) individuals to have sent the grade. The route runs alongside (and takes its name from) Chris Sharma’s legendary Biographie (9a+/5.15a), the world’s first 5.15, first climbed in 2001.

A few days after the send, however, Ghisolfi posted to Instagram. He acknowledged that immediately after the climb he “wanted to focus more on [his] journey, the climb and the people around the story of Bibliographie,” but now felt obligated to discuss the route’s grade.

“I know I can climb a 9c (5.15d),” he wrote, “but for a route to be that grade it needs to be much harder than the existing 9b+ (5.15c)’s, and Bibliographie for me isn’t. This doesn’t mean I want to belittle the performance of anyone, neither Alex’s or mine, it is still an incredible achievement (especially the first ascent that includes many more hard mental and physical aspects) but I just wanted to be honest about what I felt during the whole process on Bibliographie, and this is just my opinion, hopefully we will listen [others] soon. I would have been happy to be the third person to have climbed 9c (5.15d), but in my heart I know I’m not (yet).”

Ghisolfi works Bibliographie prior to his send on August 24. (Photo: Enrico Veronese)

Three days later, Megos himself opened up about his thoughts on the route’s grade, surprisingly agreeing with Ghisolfi’s downgrade. “I always had the feeling that 9c (5.15d) might not be the appropriate grade for the route, but I felt some pressure from the climbing world, which was already saying that it must be 9c (5.15d) if it took me 60 days [to climb].” He added, “I’m so grateful for your honest opinion Stefano! I agree with 9b+ (5.15c) and now I’ll keep looking (with Stefano) for the next potential 9c (5.15d).”

With Ghisolfi’s proposed downgrade and Megos’ consensus taken into account, Ondra’s Silence (9c/5.15d) in Flatanger, Norway is now the only proposed 9c/5.15d remaining in the world. In addition, Ondra is once again the only climber to have climbed the world’s hardest grade.

Climbing caught up with Ghisolfi to chat about Bibliographie amid his busy competition schedule (the 28-year-old Italian just competed in the IFSC Lead World Cup in Kranj, where he placed 12th but managed to secure 1st in Lead Overall for the 2021 season, thanks to a standout performance including three podiums). 

When did you decide you wanted to go for Bibliographie, and why? Was it merely to achieve 9c (5.15d) or were you inspired by this line in particular?

Ghisolfi: In 2020 I drove to Norway and I climbed Change, my second 9b+ (5.15c), and when I did it I felt my limit wasn’t that. I didn’t try Silence (9c/5.15d) during that trip, but in those days Alex [Megos] climbed Bibliographie, and from what I saw in videos and pictures it looked [like] a route that could perfectly fit my style: a long wall on crimps and pockets with some small rests. 

So after two 9b+ (5.15c)’s, I wanted to test myself on something even harder and the best option was Bibliographie, for the style and the place, Céüse is just 7 hours driving from Arco [Ghisolfi’s hometown] so I could organize several trips during one season.

How long have you been projecting the climb?

I tried it for the first time at the beginning of June and then in July the competition season started, so I stopped trying it for competing until the end of July, and went back on it the whole of August. In total, I spent 25 climbing days on the route from June to August, and around 37 days in Céüse counting the rest days too.

How did you train? I mean, how does one get mentally and physically prepared to try the hardest grade in the world?

I haven’t trained specifically for the route, I usually train to be in a good shape in competition and adapt it for my projects. I started training in February and kept going until May, then I tried the route but didn’t have time to train for it or to reproduce it on my wall because of the competitions, but the style is similar and I could take advantage of all the endurance and power training I had.

Can you tell us a bit about the style of the route?

The style is typical of Céüse, it is a long route with some harder sections alternated by rest and easier parts, with two main cruxes. The first part is around 8b+ (5.14a) route until a good rest, from there starts an intense 10-move section into the four-move crux, the hardest for me. 

Then an easier section leads into the second crux, high on the route, easier than the first but you face it with much more pump in the forearms, and after that, there is an easy eight meters (26 feet) of run out. The majority of the holds are pockets and crimps, and the first part is quite overhanging, while the second part is just slightly [overhung].

Ghisolfi latches a pocket high on the route. (Photo: Enrico Veronese)

Bibliographie also has something of a brutal approach, no? Did that make it hard to come in and project regularly? 

The approach to the crag is one hour long uphill, and it’s a crucial part of the adventure. This means for me that [it] is not possible to climb three days in a row, and sometimes I had to take an extra rest day to rest the legs and the whole body. 

In the medium and long term, this can affect the climb, and that’s why we decided to use e-bikes for the first half of the approach, this let me not accumulate fatigue during the days and gave me the possibility to climb more days than normal. In a normal climbing vacation I probably wouldn’t use them, the approach is part of the day and it is enjoyable if you take it slowly, but trying the hardest route of the world requires attention to detail, and saving energy was an important one to reach the goal.

Can you tell us a bit more about the crux, in particular? 

The crux is made of four moves: a far-left gaston, match, a reach to a small and painful pocket, and a long move to a good crimp. For me, the hardest one was to match the gaston. I fell a lot of times on that move and felt impossible coming from the ground. 

But then when I did [it] a couple of times on the attempts, the next one seemed impossible and I was afraid to keep falling there forever. But I never fell on the long move to the crimp, and the only time I passed the crux from the ground, I went straight to the chains. The second crux just fit my style better and I didn’t feel it [was] hard, probably because I have a lot of endurance.

Give us your thoughts on the downgrade. Did the route ever feel like 5.15d? Was the feeling one gets on Bibliographie distinctly different from climbing 5.15c (9b+)?

At the end, no it didn’t feel different from the other 9b+ (5.15c)’s, but I couldn’t know until the last moment. Before sending it I was always falling on the first crux, so I was thinking it could take me a long time before passing the first crux and even more time to pass the second one if I could ever pass the first one. 

But then, when I climbed the first crux and the second in one [push], I understood it wasn’t as hard as expected, also because it took me more or less the same days [as] Perfecto Mundo and Change [both routes are 9b+/5.15c]. 

I thought about it a day after the send and realized that for a route to be 9c (5.15d), the hardest route in the world, and the next step in climbing, needs to be way harder than the established 9b+ (5.15c)’s, a distinct step above, and from what I felt, Bibliographie is similar in difficulty to Perfecto Mundo and Change.

On that note, what are your thoughts on Megos’ FA vision?

First ascents involve many more aspects than just repeating the route. Searching for the betas, but even searching for the holds, understanding if the project is possible in order to decide if it is worth investing so much time on it, understand which quickdraws to clip and which to skip, and many other small details make the first ascent a journey way harder and longer. 

Bolting it (and thanks to Ethan Pringle), and climbing it for the first time, means to be a visionary and you are opening a road to the future. Being alone doing it it’s hard, no one is telling you if the beta you are trying is the best one and you can often be wrongly convinced to be right. Repeating something is easier and the method can drastically change, and so [can] the proposed grade of a route.

Lowering off of Bibliographie. (Photo: Enrico Veronese)

Finally, what’s next for you, and what’s next for the 9c/5.15d grade?

Just after Bibliographie, I went to the last World Cup in Slovenia, where after more than 12 years I was finally able to win the Overall Lead World Cup 2021. I still have one last competition this year, the World Championship in Moscow, and then I can focus on some home projects because the good season for Arco is coming. One is the hardest version of Erebor (9b/+ / 5.15b/c). I bolted and did the first ascent of Erebor between 2020 and 2021, but I also bolted a harder variant of it that is probably 9b+, I’d like to climb that one too but it seems to be much harder.

Then I have few other easier projects (but still 9a or 9a+) around here, and finally, there could be a possible 9c (5.15d) in Arco, but is on private ground and right now we are trying to find a deal with the owner to be able to climb, otherwise, right now the crag is officially closed. There are few possibilities here in Arco, though, and I’m quite sure the next 9c (5.15d) of the world will be here!

Owen Clarke is a freelance writer living on the road. In addition to spending time in the mountains, he enjoys motorcycles, heavy metal, video games, and key lime pie.